By Jeff Milby —
With just seconds remaining against George Mason, and the score out of reach at 72-61, David Padgett strode down the sideline toward the opponent’s bench. Pulling his hands from his pockets, the 6-foot-11 former center bent over slightly to greet Patriot coach Dave Paulsen as the buzzer sounded.
It was the first moment following his first head coaching victory.
Paulsen, 53, embraced Padgett by the shoulder and the two exchanged pleasantries. Three months ago, Paulsen would have imagined this moment differently. He would have expected to meet a Hall of Fame coach, with 769 victories and two national championships to his name.
Instead, it was Paulsen with the longer and more accomplished resume. His counterpart was a fresh-faced rookie, 21 years his junior and with 23 fewer years of head coaching experience.
“I was anxious,” Padgett said, of his first game at the helm of the program he played for. “I’m glad it’s out of the way now.”
At 32, Padgett is the fourth-youngest head coach in Division I men’s basketball. And while it’s tough to take over a household name at a young age, the program has a successful history of hiring youthful, unproven coaches.
On Dec. 1, 1971, a 34-year-old Denny Crum lost his head coaching debut to Florida, then went on to lead Louisville to a 26-5 record and an appearance in the program’s second Final Four.
Nearly 30 years later, on March 7, 2001, that tenure ended with a 74-61 Louisville loss to UAB in the Conference USA Tournament at Freedom Hall.
Leading the lower-seeded team, Crum coached from the visitor’s bench. According to the Associated Press report of the game, an appreciative crowd chanted, “Denny! Denny!” and held aloft signs that read “No Pitino” in protest of ultimately correct speculation on Crum’s successor.
Padgett had turned 16 just three weeks prior, and was in his sophomore year of high school. He was still 19 months from committing to play basketball at the University of Kansas, and over four years from suiting up for Louisville.
Between Crum’s swan song and Padgett’s debut, 6,094 days elapsed. In that time, Louisville won 415 games, advanced to four Final Fours, and won a national championship.
A generation of basketball fans were weened on a Cardinal head coach that wore flashy Armani suits, instituted a defense-first playing style and stomped the floor with his shoe heels to get his players attention.
Some things, aside from the Armani suits, haven’t changed.
“I did find myself stomping the floor a few times,” Padgett said, drawing laughs from the gathered press in response to a question about his the influence of his predecessor. “I guess old habits die hard.”
Questions about his predecessors greet Padgett every time he meets with the press.
“I’m not trying to prove myself, to meet coach Pitino’s standards, to meet coach Crum’s standards,” Padgett said at his introductory press conference. “I’m just trying to win as many games as we can for these kids.”
When questions turn to the man responsible for his precarious coaching debut, Padgett handles them with courtesy and honesty.
“I can’t deny my relationship with coach Pitino. I wouldn’t be at Louisville if it wasn’t for him,” Padgett said, in an interview with the CBS Sports show We Need To Talk. “He’s prepared me to be a head coach as best he can these last four years that I’ve worked for him. Obviously, I didn’t expect that head coaching job to be at Louisville, taking his place … At the end of the day, he knows that I’m in charge from this point forward.”
Regardless of what the future holds for Padgett, he has his focus on the here-and-now, and the players he’s working for — not the ghosts of Louisville basketball past.
“What it comes down to, for me personally, is the 14 guys that are in our locker room,” he said. “They are the reason why we are here.”
You can follow Jeff Milby on twitter @j-milbz.
Photo by Laurel Slaughter / The Louisville Cardinal